by Ed Mitchell
With the flooding tide came fog. It settled around me in clouds, while the rushing waters of the inlet pulled steadily at my feet. I was on Block Island, wading a shallow bar where the channel to New Harbor swung tight to the shore. Only a short distance away the bottom dropped away like a stone and within a few feet of shore the water was inky black, more than 15 feet deep. Yet the surface was deceptively smooth, glassy gray in the soft light of a diffuse dawn. It was a place you had to wade carefully.
Downtide a short distance away, a small patch of water caught my eye. Its surface was dimpled, as if some how struck by light rain. Odder still, the patch was moving toward me. As it neared, I stopped casting and peered down into the depths, curious about the origins of this quirky piece of water. Just below the surface was a dark, tightly packed school of baitfish and as they slowly twisted and turning in the current, flashes of silver erupted from the depths. It was a school of sand eels. Feeding in the inlet's plankton rich flow, they progressed another thirty feet uptide and then suddenly turned, dropping back below me, only to circle back and begin the slow process once again.
For fly rodders along the northeast coast, the presence of sand eels is always a hopeful sign. Most of the gamefish these anglers seek, including bluefish, bonito, little tunny, striped bass and weakfish, feed on this slender bait and are often nearby to where they are found. Further sweetening the mix, unlike some other baitfish such as menhaden, sand eels are small, slender and narrow. Their basic body shape is therefore easy to match with a dressed hook.
Sand eel, more properly called sand lances, are not eels at all. Instead they are fish of the genus Ammodytes, whose elongated shape, long dorsal and anal fin give it an eel-like appearance. They are two species in the waters of the northwest Atlantic: Ammodytes dubious and Ammodytes americanus. Both are extremely important members of our marine ecosystem, supplying a valuable forage base for predator fish and coastal birds. Ammodytes dubious is strictly an offshore species and therefore less overall concern to fly rodders. Ammodytes americanus, on the other hand, is found in our estuaries and along our coastlines as well as in the deeper waters off the continental shelf. Its range extends from roughly Cape Hatteras in the south, northward to the Canadian Maritimes.
A sand eel is a slim, yet attractive fish. Its head is slightly long for its body, and it has a decidedly pointed snout and large eyes. Like many marine fish it can change its color to match different habitats and thereby better camouflage itself. Along the outer beaches of Cape Cod, for example, with their gin clear water and light sand bottoms, sand eels are often pale colored. Many have light green backs and in some spots they are paler still, being tan and even faintly pink. Conversely, in the more discolored waters of Long Island sound, sand eels are darker with backs varying from olive brown to black. Wherever you find them, however, sand eels have bright silver flanks with a beautiful iridescent sheen and a white belly.
Offshore americanus reaches a maximum size of 9 inches, but inshore, where most anglers encounter them, it is rarely over 6 inches and most commonly 4 inches or less. As with color, locality plays a role, too. In Long Island Sound, it is rare to find sand eels beyond a year of age. Therefore a fly of 3 inches or less is usually accurate. Farther north, along the open coast Atlantic coast of Cape Cod on up to Maine, sand eels up to 6 years of age and 5 or 6 inches in length are not uncommon. For that reason, fly rodders in these waters should be carrying longer fly patterns. Naturally the size of the average sand eel increases as the season goes on. In the spring, very small young-of-the-year sand eels, born in the winter, are numerous. These youngsters may be hardly the size of a paper match and when fish such as striped bass key in on them, a similar size fly should be in your arsenal. Later in the season, in all locations, the sand eels are on average a bit larger then they were in the spring.
Be aware that sand eels within the same general area may segregate themselves locally by size. This is not to say that they never mix sizes, only that there is a noticeable trend for large and small sand eels to visit different areas, especially in the spring. For instance, in late spring, small young-of-the-year sand eels are a regular feature on the flats of Monomoy, but literally just around the corner in the swift waters of Chatham inlet much bigger sand eels are found. On Martha's Vineyard you can see the same thing. The beaches, harbors and ponds on the eastern end of the island have larger sand eels in June than one common finds farther west in Lobsterville.
Regardless of size or time of year, sand eels travel in schools. They are primarily plankton feeders and therefore attracted to areas where plankton is plentiful. Coastal river mouths, salt ponds, inlets of all kinds, bays that face the prevailing wind and the warm water releases from coastal power plants are typical locations. Since current tends to concentrate plankton, sand eels feed near rip lines, especially those from where the exiting flow of an estuary funnels over a bar. They are also found where tidal currents move along an open beach.
As their name implies, sand eel are typically found over sand bottoms. Their preference for this type of habitat is at least in come part based on their ability to bury themselves up to 6 inches deep in a soft bottom, since they are able to hide from predators by burying themselves in a soft bottom. Still you can find sand eels over bottoms with mixed rock and sand, or places with soft mud.
Sand eel populations go through periods of boom and bust, as do many other marine finfish. In Long Island Sound, for instance, sand eel populations boomed in 1965, 1966, 1978, and 1979. Yet from 1971 to 1974 and again from 1980 to 1983 there were marked declines. More recently, in my experience, the year from 1989 to 1991 were excellent for sand eels, but since then, their numbers have been down in the Sound. Since they spawn in early winter, weather patterns likely play some role in their reproductive success. Research indicates that a cold December is good for reproductive success.
Fly Patterns: Some Oldies but Goodies
Fly tiers along the northeast coast have long known the value of a good sand eel pattern. Yet because this type of fly-fishing is still in its infancy and just beginning to attract large numbers of anglers, patterns have developed slowly. One of the first widely use flies was Bub Church's Tandem sand eel. It can be see in Kenneth Bay's 1972 book, Salt Water Flies. The release 2 years later of Lefty Kreh's Fly Fishing in Salt Water marked a growing momentum in the sport Joe Brooks called the sport of "willow wanding the salt". Since then the number of sand eel flies has grown greatly spurred on by the number of new devotes to the sport.
The key to a successful sand eel imitation is to tie the fly slim or sparse. Color scheme vary but are usually based on the natural with a darker back and brighter sides. Flies intended for night are often all black. The average hook size is #1/0 and most anglers prefer stainless steel hooks. I have caught fish on sand-eel flies from size #8 to size #3/0. Lets take a look at some of the more common patterns.
Bub Church's Sand Eel
The recipe for this fly has been published in two versions. The first used badger hackle as a wing and the second substituted peacock herl. Either way the fly catches fish. It is a bit more time consuming to tie than the other patterns, however, and the wings are fragile.
Hook: #2 to #1/0; same front and back.
Thread: Red or black.
Body: Hooks in tandem using 30 pound mono or wire; Mylar tubing; average body length of 4 inches.
Wing: Badger hackle or peacock herl tied down on both hooks.
Tail: Grizzly hackle tips.
Throat (optional): peacock sword strands
Some of the earliest sand eel patterns were actually developed not for striped bass, but for sea run brown trout. I believe these next two patterns fall into that category.
Harris Sand Eel by Bill Hubbard
Hook: #2 t0 #6 8xl ring-eye
Body: 3/16 silver Mylar tubing over lead wire.
Wing: 3 strands of pearl Flashabou on each side and 6 strands of olive bucktail on top; extend both to tail and tie down.
Head: Coated with clear cement
Eyes: Epoxy plastic eyes or paint
Percy's Sand Eel
Hook: #2 to #2/0 stainless
Body: Individual insulated telephone wire wound on tightly (or substitute a similar tying material).
Rib: Fine silver wire.
Tail: 2 to 3 inches of straight bucktail.
Connecticut angler Lou Tabory has a floating and a sinking sand eel pattern. Both are very good. I use a similar floating pattern tied with balsa wood instead of surfboard foam. The balsa work well and is easier for me to find. I attach the wood to the shank of an Eagle Claw long shank 66ss. I skip the epoxy finish and simply apply a quick coat of paint over the wood; often it is black. A black floating sand eel pattern is very effective over shallow beaches at night.
Tabory's Floating Sand Eel
Hook: Mustad 92608 stainless, #2/0 (remember to straighten the bend before tying)
Body: ¼ to 3/8 inch square of surfboard foam nearly the length of the hook. Epoxy it onto hook and coat it with epoxy before painting.
Tail: Mylar strands, bucktail, and peacock herl extending back about the length of the hook shank.
Tabory's Basic Sand Eel
Hook: 32/0 to #3/0 3xl
Thread : Dark gray.
Body: Black wool tightly wound over lead if necessary.
Tail: Brown bucktail, 1.5" long
Where and When
Typically sand eel appear along our beaches in June. And once in place they will provide action right through the summer. Any estuary or river mouth or beach with sand bottom is a potential sand eel location. Short of actually seeing schools, there are a number of common clues that can help you find sand eels. Terns diving hard at dusk or dawn is number one in my book. If they seem to be catching something small and hard to see, suspect sand eels. Gulls digging at the water's edge during a retreating tide is another possible sign. Dig with your hands right where the gulls are most active. You'll probably come up with a hand full of sand eels.
A third way I find sand eels is by asking local surfcasters where they have the most action on their "teasers" or Red Gills. They use these as droppers in front of a larger plug to take fish that are feeding on sand eels. If the fish are hitting the smaller artificals, fly rodders are likely to be in business too.
Another indicator is rarely seen, but if you can find it, you'll enjoy some fantastic fishing. When sand eels populations are heavy along a shoreline, stripers can come in on a rising tide and dig for them with their blunt snouts. I have seen hundreds of bass with their tails and backs out of the water, rooting for like bonefish. Last July Phil Farnsworth and I came across such a situation on the Connecticut shore. We hooked and released over 60 stripers between us, with half a dozen fish weighting near 15 pounds, before dawn pushed them out. It was night we never forget.
Fishing Sand-eel the Fly
Once you realize that sand eels are residing on a particular shoreline, the trick is to be there when predators move in to feed. Striped bass and bluefish are well aware that sand eel move into shallow water at dusk to bed down. This is a vulnerable moment for the eels. At dusk if the sand eels fail to pick a spot and burrow into the bottom quickly, the game fish will herd them against the shoreline. The same is true just prior to dawn as the sand eels emerge. They must form schools and move out to deeper water quickly or be pinned against the beach.
Both of these bites can be very good. And the action is usually marked by numerous swirls. In my experience, however, the dawn bite is more intense, but also much shorter, sometimes covering only 45 minutes. The dawn bite usually starts about an hour before actual sunrise and lasts until the sun shows over the horizon. The dusk bite is frequently less concentrated, yet may extend for several hours. In June, for instance, six o'clock is about right to get started on the water and with luck the action builds slowly all the way until dark. If the sand eel schools are thick you may have difficulty getting a strike. Switching to a sinking line often helps, because it gets your fly under the school where the stripers can more easily see it.
Some of the most consistent action, however, especially for larger fish occurs at night. After the sand eels bed down, the action typically goes slack for a couple of hours. Some anglers will leave, but the smart one will stick around. Later, a good number of sand eel will leave the safety of their bed for a late night meal of plankton near the surface. This is especially true on nights with an incoming tide. Regardless of the tide, however, if the waters are calm, a floating fly slowly retrieved over the surface is deadly.
The best retrieve during any of these times is what I'll call the "hand-over-hand" method. (Note: today this is known as the 'two-handed' retrieve.) Instead of stripping the fly back in the conventional manner, after I cast I place the rod high under my casting arm. Then I reach forward with either hand, grasp the line just short of the stripping guide, and pull down slowly while bringing the other hand up. The idea is to produce a slow, steady, and continuous retrieve.
The "hand-over-hand" method may seem unorthodoxy, but it has several advantages. It produces a natural swimming motion, and for that reason often generates more strikes. And when you're night fishing stripers will pick up the fly very lightly and continue swimming toward you. If your retrieve is continuous, your contact with the fly is continuous. You can feel the change in resistance no matter how small. Lastly this retrieve style lends itself to a more solid hook set. When the fish grabs you simply pull back on the line. It's a direct hit. Remember to keep your rod tip point down during the retrieve so there is very little slack between you and the fly.
Ed Mitchell - originally published 1991. Visit Ed's website.
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